An Annotated Bibliography on Violence against Women in the Ancient World
Through this annotated bibliography, we seek to explore the sociopolitical roots of violence against women, and how these structural applications fed into the widespread normalization we see today. We have chosen to evaluate both primary and secondary sources to better understand the culture of male violence that pervaded Rome as well as modern scholarly interpretations.
Greco-Roman Social and Legal Implications of Rape
By Hannah Dubb
Witzke, Serena S. “Violence against Women in Ancient Rome: Ideology versus Reality. The Topography of Violence in the Greco-Roman World, edited by Werner Riess and Garrett G. Fagan, University of Michigan Press, 2016, pp. 248-274.
In this essay, Serena S. Witzke explores the classical literary patterns of violence against women, and how those patterns both highlight and obscure the lived experience of women in that period. Witzke begins by detailing the rich “mythohistory” of sexual violence in Livy’s Ab urbe condita. The main point of this analysis is while violence against women in Livy’s corpus is horrifying and perversely theatrical, they do not paint an accurate picture of a contemporary citizen woman’s actual life. The sexual violence is not there to provide an historical record of crimes; rather, “they describe horrific events that shaped and motivated political change within the Roman state, and they speak to ideological assumptions of male-female relations” (252). Livy’s depiction of rape serves to both show threats to a purportedly-safe Rome and exploit female bodies to depict assertions of Rome’s ultimate power. By the late Republican period, female citizenry certainly faced some risk, but Augustus’ “moral reforms” restricted husbands’ rights to physically punish or kill them. Physical abuse was carried out publicly and with public approval, as a woman “disgracing” her family was considered a public embarrassment to her husband and to Roman moral superiority. Augustus essentially had the final say in punishment, as he was considered all women’s paterfamilias(the pater patriae).
In contrast, “noncitizen slaves and sex laborers” (as Witzke classes them) had so such protections. While violence against citizen women was necessarily public, violence toward the noncitizen slave and sex laborer were intensely private acts and were implicitly accepted as the status quo by society at large. Witzke writes, “[F]emale slaves were considered sexual objects until they were worn out by old age, abuse, or overwork” (262). While Livy’s Roman creation myth is the home of sexual violence towards female citizens, the rape of noncitizen slaves and sex laborers line the annals of Roman comedy. On the page and in reality, female slaves faced sexual violence from their masters and other male slaves, not to mention physical abuse by the citizen women of their household. Sex workers were praised as the gorgeous “girlfriends” of various elegists (Propertius, Tibullus, Ovid), but were threatened with violence if they were ever to have sex with another man. Sex workers had to carefully pander to these clients’ fantasies for some semblance of protection. Unlike with violence against the citizen women, sex laborers had no legal framework to fall back on.
Witzke’s essay illustrates a crucial aspect of our topic: the intersection of gender and class. Many of the ancient Roman dynamics and motivations are still present today, albeit in less dramatic forms. According to a 2017 article by The Huffington Post, sex workers face sexual assault at high rates but are excluded from many protective mechanisms extended to non-sex worker victims. In any case, the core motivations for many sexual assaults have not changed. The exploitation of women’s bodies to assert power is recalled in this quote from the World Health Organization: “The underlying factors in many sexually violent acts are power and control, not, as is widely perceived, a craving for sex.” In addition, it contains important ideas and information contextualizing the purpose of various documents we might look to (Ab urbe condita, elegies, comedies). While Livy’s stories show the lengths to which classical authors were willing to violate women’s bodies, elegies and comedies show the everyday violations that actually took place. This distinction is vital to a nuanced look at violence against women in the ancient world.
Lape, Susan. “Democratic Ideology and The Poetics of Rape in Menandrian Comedy.” Classical Antiquity, vol. 20, no. 1, 2001, pp. 79–119. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/ca.2001.20.1.79. Accessed 26 Jan. 2020.
In “Democratic Ideology and The Poetics of Rape in Menandrian Comedy,” Susan Lape explores how Ancient Greek comedies portray sexual violence, and what that indicates about the larger society that they were being written in. The comedies that Lape examines are overwhelmingly formulaic. A young Athenian citizen gets drunk at a nighttime festival and rapes a stranger. The rape is then almost always “resolved” by the marriage of the victim and perpetrator. The key idea is that “Menandrian comedy never morally or legally problematizes rape” (80). This may at first seem impossible as the works are also meant to adhere rigidly with Athenian law and morals. While rape was certainly not legal, a mutual romantic pairing was not what Athenian marriage meant. The consent of the woman was not important, but rather the approval of her father in entering her into a procreative agreement. And that was the ultimate goal of marriage: to further an Athenian bloodline. In fact, Athenian citizenship was granted if one was the child of two citizens. However, as this was difficult to prove, the objective was to “act Athenian,” and so marrying an Athenian was of the utmost importance. In order to attempt to remedy the tension between the sanctity of citizenship and citizens being raped, the comedies make important choices in how they frame rape. For one, they assert that “male sexual desire is a valid and indeed acceptable basis on which to found marriage” (102). By extension, this means that any act that furthers the legal and child-bearing union of two citizens is ultimately excusable.
Susan Lape’s article provides an invaluable link between ancient literature and real attitudes toward violence against women and its purpose. This also connects to Serena Witzke’s reference to comedies, rather than foundational myths, being the most representative of ancient women’s actual experiences. Gendered violence cannot be understood as a singular event—it is very often normalized (to some degree) in the society in which it occurs. Historical decisions can also explicitly and implicitly signal which values take precedence in a society. For example, Pericles’s mid-5th century BCE citizenship reforms were meant to ease economic stratification and condense social distinctions to that of citizenship status. In furtherance of this ideal, marrying for money was looked down on, and the inter-class marriages resulting from Menandrian rape plots were meant to be symptomatic of an egalitarian Athens. Nonetheless, male comic protagonists’ lust consistently took precedence over female autonomy. Egalitarianism was the goal, but only when it sought to show the dominance of a patriarchal culture.
Propertius. “The Elegies: Book II.” [c. 24 BCE]. Translated by A. S. Kline. Poetry in Translation, 2008, https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/PropertiusBkTwo.php. Accessed 26 Jan. 2020.
Propertius’s second book of elegies is a list of the ups and downs in the relationship between a fictionalized version of himself and Cynthia, presumed to be a sex worker. Sometimes, he showers her with praise, comparing her to various goddesses. He goes so far as to claim that he was content in being single but “Amor betrayed [him]” (II.II). The hyperbole he invests in complimenting Cynthia is present as well in his insults. Propertius never threatens rape in this context; rather, he threatens a permanent record of her apparent misdeeds.
Beyond detailing his relationship with Cynthia specifically, Propertius discusses “the advantage of a bought woman.” Although Propertius attributes his sadness to Cynthia rejecting him, it becomes clear that he very deliberately took up with a sex worker: in the end, she doesn’t really have the power to reject him. In the aforementioned section, Propertius writes,
“[I]sn’t she pleasing, that girl who goes with her cloak thrown back, not fenced in by a threatened guard, who often abrades the Sacred Way in dirty slippers, and brooks no delay if you want to approach her: she never puts you off, nor chatters aloud, […] nor will she say: ‘I’m scared, get up, be quick, I beg you, wretched man: my husband comes to do for me, from the country'” (II.XXIII).
As discussed by Witzke, a sex worker would have no legal recourse (i.e. paterfamilias) for an assault. In addition, Propertius actively wants a “promiscuous” woman. The only reason he slut-shames Cynthia in II.II is because she is giving herself sexually to another man.
Although Propertius writes Cynthia as having control over their relationship, an elegy titled “Joy in true love” reveals how deeply false this is:
“But if you insist from pride in laying there dressed, you’ll feel my hands ripping your clothes: what’s more if anger provokes me any further, you’ll be showing bruised arms to your mother. Sagging breasts don’t stop you from toying yet: let them think of it that childbirth’s already shamed” (II.XV).
Sickeningly reminiscent of Ovid’s “rape is doing a woman a favor” mindset, Propertius frames sexually assaulting Cynthia as a compliment to her beauty. As Menandrian comedies do, Propertius uses uncontrollable sexual desire as a justification for rape. In a society based on myths in which gods rape goddesses, this proves unsurprising. Propertius is able to simultaneously call Cynthia a princess with the beauty of a goddess and also “forgive” Jupiter his rape of her mythological analog (II.II). Saying she has the beauty of a goddess does not save her from rape—rather, such a statement is essential in justifiying it. In contrast, when their relationship later is in shambles, Propertius pointedly writes that he wouldn’trape her (a veiled insult). In a broader sense, Propertius groups all of his persona’s fantasies and actions under the banner of servitium amoris, or “the slavery of love.” It is grossly ironic that Propertius writes his persona as a kind of “slave”—one who cannot exercise free will for fear of violent punishment—to a sex worker who is in actuality dependent on and controlled by him. As he himself explicitly states, he could easily rape her, and yet he is the one who Amor is manipulating.
Finally, there is something to be said about the circumstances of this book’s creation: it’s not a memoir, so Propertius had free reign over the content. Tellingly—and not unlike Ovid—Propertius creates a false narrative to justify sexual violence. He presents a facade of emotional vulnerability that is in fact predicated on the physical vulnerability of a woman. Propertius’s second book of elegies speaks to the tacit home rape and sexual manipulation in the literature of antiquity. Whether they portrayed experiences of rape realistically or not, they always sought to perpetuate a belief system that facilitated—and even encouraged rape. Analysis reveals again and again that sexual violence was only problematic when men in power framed it as such. As their narratives were the only ones allowed public exposure, this system was intensely normalized and widely accepted.
Ovid. “Ars Amatoria: Book I.” [c. 2 CE]. Translated by A. S. Kline. Poetry in Translation, 11 Aug. 2001, https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/ArtofLoveBkI.php. Accessed 26 Jan. 2020.
Ovid’s Ars Amatoria is essentially instructions on how to “seduce” a woman in Ancient Rome. Book I provides guidance in finding a woman and maintaining the relationship. A predator-prey dynamic is integral to the beginning of a relationship:
“The hunter knows where to spread nets for the stag,
he knows where valleys hide the angry boar:
[…] You too, who search for the essence of lasting love, / must be taught the places that the girls frequent” (I.II).
In advising about places that “the girls frequent,” Ovid makes some assertions about those girls’ character in particular locations. He implies that a woman’s willingness to have sex is an entirely calculable quantity, one dependent on her environment. Of theatre-goers, he says, “They come to see, they come to be seen as well: / the place is fatal to chaste modesty” (I.IV). Notice Ovid’s use of the word fatal; such language choice is emblematic of the bond between desire (alternately called ‘love’ or ‘lust’) and violence. Soon after this line, Ovid references the Rape of the Sabine Women, further cementing this relationship. Although he starts by proposing a carefully paced, gentlemanly courtship, when it comes to the consummation of the relationship, he writes: “Though she might not give, take what isn’t given. / Perhaps she’ll struggle, and then say ‘you’re wicked’: / struggling she still wants, herself, to be conquered” (I.XVII).
The Ars Amatoriais perhaps the most explicit call for sexual violence that I have encountered thus far. Since justifying rape by saying a woman’s consent doesn’t matter would surely be societally unacceptable, Ovid employs various—equally horrifying—techniques. For example, he sets up that women are actually sexually insatiable, but live in a society that only accepts male open displays of desire. He writes, “Even she you might think dislikes it, will like it, / […] the cow lows to the bull in gentle pastures / […] Desire in [men] is milder and less frantic: / the male fire has its lawful limits” (I.IX). There’s an implication that a man is, in fact, doing a woman a favor my raping her: she would pursue him, but it is not societally acceptable. Compare this to Lape’s assessment of Menandrian comedy-rape plots; Ovid indeed uses an uncontrollable desire as justification, but classes that desire as a distinctly female thing. Men are “lawful,” while women are playing the male’s base animal instincts. By using this word, Ovid is avoiding any legal ramifications with the assertion that a man would do anything unlawful to a woman (if only because no woman would ever actually not want sex). This justification is eerily similar to modern rapists’ reasons for their crimes. A 1984 study found that rapists said things like “women are seductresses” and “women mean “yes” when they say no.”” Ovid disgustingly advocates robbing a woman of her bodily autonomy, all in the name of supposedly enabling it. In the end, however, Ovid’s objective is transparent: to construct a false moral landscape that is hospitable to rape with impunity. Ideally, sex is a mutually pleasurable experience. A prerequisite for this to happen, though, is consent. So while Ovid frames the act of rape as mutually pleasurable, that is simply impossible. By definition, rape is meant to extract pleasure at the expense of another person’s will. Furthermore, Ovid speaks to this toxic one-sidedness: “Let your mistress’s birthday be one of great terror to you: / that’s a black day when anything has to be given” (I.XI). Ovid’s Ars Amatoria speaks to the systematic way in which the ancient world avoided problematizing rape. Ovid’s perspective was not an isolated one, but one shared across many facets of Roman society: from the writings of his peers to the declarations of the Senate.
Cultural Normalization of Violence against Women in Antiquity
By Olivia Shuman
Ovid. “MetamorphosesBook I (A. S. Kline’s Version).” University of Virginia Library, Translated by Anthony Kline, https://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Metamorph.htm#488381106. Accessed 21 Jan. 2020.
Ovid’s tale begins with a description of young Daphne exploring the woods, avoiding love. Her father is impatient and pressures her to marry and have children; Daphne, repulsed by the concept of marriage, begs him to “‘let [her] be a virgin for ever.’” Although Daphne’s father concedes, it is understood that her request will be difficult to uphold due to her beauty. Meanwhile, Apollo, having been struck by Cupid’s arrow, lustfully watches Daphne, scanning her body and imagining her undressed. She leaves as he calls after her. Apollo admits that he is “chasing” her, but explains that he is pursuing her out of love, expecting her to “pity” him. He expresses concern that she will trip and injure herself while running, but refuses to slow down first; instead, he asks her to do so with the promise that he will follow suit. He explains to her that she is being “rash” and running out of ignorance rather than true danger. As Daphne continues to flee him, Apollo begins to romanticize her appearance as she runs; in fact, the story emphasizes that the running makes her even more beautiful. Tired of “wast[ing] time,” he begins to chase her as quickly as possible, Ovid now comparing the two to a hound and a hare. Daphne’s energy is eventually exhausted, so she prays in desperation to her father, to “‘destroy this beauty that pleases too well.’” She is transformed into a laurel tree, bark covering her frozen body until “only her shining beauty was left.” Apollo reaches her and holds the branches as he kisses her. Even as a tree, Daphne does not reciprocate, so Apollo declares the tree his. Daphne silently shakes her leaves, bringing the myth to a close.
The story of Apollo and Daphne exposes a pattern in Roman culture with regard to the treatment of women. First, Daphne’s father has control over her sexuality and can choose the point at which she abandons her chastity. Being married and having children are debts that Daphne must pay to her father, as was expected of every good Roman daughter. Instead of becoming a wife and mother, she asks her father to grant her lifelong virginity. Later, it is her father specifically to whom Daphne prays when she is desperate to remain chaste. Apollo immediately objectifies Daphne, noticing every inch of her body before speaking to her. In fact, Daphne does not once speak to Apollo: her first and last words in his presence are the plea to her father. Daphne’s personhood does not matter in Apollo’s eyes, which is made especially clear by the way that he pursues her. As he chases her, he says that she is fleeing him like a sheep, deer, or dove would flee a wolf, mountain lion, or eagle. Apollo, despite making the comparison himself, does not acknowledge that this is her cause of fear. Daphne also recognizes the resemblance their chase bears to that of hunting, and, as the prey in the situation, cannot rename it in her mind as love in the same way that Apollo does. To Daphne, this race is life or death. The seemingly light-hearted pursuit of Daphne loses its aspect of flattery and becomes a full-fledged hunt as Apollo gets increasingly frustrated at her rejection, and Ovid at this point uses the word “prey” in reference to the terrified woman. Ovid plays further on the predator and prey metaphor, describing Apollo’s “outstretched jaws” and Daphne “escaping his bite.” Ovid’s description of the two could be a sentence in innumerable Greco-Roman myths: “So the virgin and the god: he driven by desire, she by fear.” This concept of violent pursuit based in lust was extremely common in Roman mythology because it was extremely common in Roman culture. In many stories, such as the rape myths of Lucretia and the Sabine women, gods do not appear at all. The stories are disturbingly true-to-life because they occurred historically as well: a man in power wielding his status as a tool to abuse a woman. Thus, it is unsurprising, even expected, that violence against women is at the center of Roman entertainment. It is also significant that Daphne is defined here by two things: her fear and her virginity. These are the two factors for most rape cases: how a woman reacted to the attack and the relevance of her prior purity (a concept that we modernly refer to as victim-blaming). As the chase nears its end, Daphne has no other option but to become inhuman to save herself from rape. She becomes a tree, losing her body, voice, and mobility. She has run out of energy and knows that the only way that she can stop running is if she no longer has the body of a woman. Apollo violates her anyway, but Daphne “shrank from his kisses” even then. Apollo decides that he will take Daphne as his personal possession and pieces of her will be used to make things for him and other men. Ironically, this section is entitled “Phoebus honours Daphne.” The myth ends with Daphne’s silent gesture: she “seemed to shake her leafy crown like a head giving consent.” This last phrase is particularly fascinating to compare with modern discussions of consent, as more begin to advocate for the “yes means yes” approach; that is, that silence, hesitation, and a position in which a woman is unable to say “no” (among other situations) do not indicate true assent. Ovid’s word choice seems purposeful– Daphne does not nod like she is consenting, but rather “seems” to do so. The implication is that whether or not Daphne does consent (and it is extremely unlikely that she would), and whether or not Apollo genuinely believes that she is giving consent (also extremely unlikely), Apollo takes Daphne’s shaking of her leaves as a “yes” to being used for his purposes.
The function of the myth of Apollo and Daphne in the Roman world is unclear. It is possible that it was seen as a simple unpreventable tragedy. It is possible that it was seen as another caper of the gods, much like many other rape stories written off as lustful gods being irresponsible. It is also possible and likely that this served as a cautionary tale for young unmarried women. Daphne is described in the beginning of the myth as a girl “careless” of the gods of love, “free from men and unable to endure them.” This could have functioned as a means of frightening free girls into domesticity. Additionally, it could have functioned as a easy excuse for male violence. Roman men might have spun the myth as a tragic but preventable event that occurred because a girl did not do what she was supposed to do: marry and have children, or, if she refused that, immediately allow an unknown man to rape and marry her. When we discuss violence against women, it is crucial to recognize entitlement and objectification as associated behaviors. Indeed, entitlement and objectification are almost unfailingly the driving forces behind male violence toward women. It was not Apollo’s love for Daphne that spurred his attack, but his lust and status–and the conflation of the two.
Ovid. “MetamorphosesBook VI (A. S. Kline’s Version).” University of Virginia Library, Translated by Anthony Kline, https://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Metamorph6.htm. Accessed 23 Jan. 2020.
In Book VI of the Metamorphoses, Ovid tells the story of Philomela and her brother-in-law, Tereus. The story begins with the marriage of Tereus and Athenian princess Procne, a term of agreement between Thrace and Athens. The goddesses of marriage do not attend, and the marriage is equated with a funeral. Several years later, Procne asks Tereus to allow a visit from her sister, Philomela. Tereus travels to his father-in-law to retrieve Philomela, but when he sees her, he is consumed by lust. Tereus begins to exaggerate the importance of Philomela’s visit in order to convince her father to let her leave. Due to Philomela’s similar begging, the king allows her to visit Procne, but asks that Tereus provide her with safety. Instead, Tereus locks her in a building secluded in the woods and rapes her as she screams for her father, Procne, and the gods. Philomela runs her nails down her hair and arms and openly condemns him, referring to herself as “lost” with “guilt” on her conscience and asking him to murder her. She threatens that she, “‘without shame, will tell what [he has] done’” and that “‘if [she gets] the chance, it will be in front of everyone.’” Enraged and in a panic, Tereus ties Philomela up using her own hair and reveals his sword. Philomela believes that he is going to kill her, so she exposes her neck; instead, he removes her tongue and throws it onto the dirt. He then rapes her several more times. He returns to Procne and, mimicking grief, tells her that Philomela is dead and that they performed a funeral in her honor. Procne grieves as Philomela, alive, passes a year imprisoned. One day, Philomela (who still cannot speak) weaves the true story of Tereus’s rape on a loom and sends it to Procne by means of a servant. Terrified, vengeful, and grieving, Procne leaves with a spear to find Philomela, and once she finds her, “breaks the door down, seizes her sister,” and returns to the palace. Procne embraces her sister, but Philomela looks away in shame, believing that she has betrayed Procne by being raped by her husband. Procne feels differently and begins to plot revenge on Tereus. When her son enters to greet her, she begins to express the unfairness of Itys’s ability to speak when Philomela cannot. She takes him to the woods, where the two sisters kill him and cook his body. Later, Procne serves Tereus the meat of his son, then Philomela enters and throws the boy’s disembodied head in front of the father. In his grief, Tereus chases the women with his sword, and all three characters become birds.
The myth of Philomela, Procne, and Tereus explores merciless male violence as well as misogynistic tropes used to ultimately devalue the female perspectives in a situation of rape. Ovid’s narration when Tereus first sees Philomela excuses his lust as a cultural matter, stating that “he burnt with his own vice and his nation’s.” It is notable that Ovid portrays Tereus’s lust as a vice; this is likely because Tereus is the king of Thrace and thus a foreigner. Ovid’s condemnation of this lust is significant because it is mainly used as a means for devaluing a society different from Greece and Rome, despite lust and rape being an intrinsic aspect of Greco-Roman culture. Tereus plans to either isolate her from aid and charm her “or rape her and defend the rape in savage war.” Tereus is determined to engage with Philomela sexually and does not care whether she is interested. He knows that if she takes an interest in him, it will be under circumstances in which she has no one with whom to confer. The circumstances under which it is possible for her to agree to have sex with him are so specific and unlikely that he expects to rape her and is indifferent about doing so. Her potential trauma and autonomy as a person are trivial to him, because he sees only an experience that he wants and a way to obtain it. This is particularly clear when he exclaims as they sail away, “‘I have won! I carry with me what I wished for!’” Philomela is not referred to as “whom” (a person) but “what” (an object). Indeed, when Tereus leaves Athens with Philomela, he is described as an eagle watching a hare: “there is no escape for the captive, and the raptor gazes at its prize.” Ovid uses the familiar predator/prey metaphor to express their dynamic–Tereus knowingly preying on an uninterested Philomela and trapping her.
As seen in many of Ovid’s myths, the concept of paternalism surfaces through Philomela’s relationship with her father, the king of Athens. Although the discussion is not about her virginity in this particular instance (as in some other myths), Philomela begs her father to allow her to leave their home, and when she departs with Tereus, the king sobs. Although not tied directly to violence, it is unsurprising that the theme of young women asking for their fathers’ permission to make certain choices appears in the same stories; this patronization is tied to control, which is the leading force behind domestic and sexual violence. Indeed, it is the force behind Tereus’s rape of Philomela, which is extraordinarily carefully planned out so that she cannot be heard or found if she screams. Philomela is described during the rape as “a virgin and alone.” In these myths, it is always noted when a young woman is a virgin. They almost always are virgins, although in cases where they are not, their status as a wife to a man is central to their character and decisions that they make (Lucretia is one example of this circumstance). A woman’s virginity in a myth was likely mentioned to increase reason for pity from readers at the time; that is to say, a chaste woman was more pitiable because her intact purity had been soiled or tainted (as opposed to an unchaste woman, for whom a rape would essentially be just another stain on an already dirty rag). The traumatized Philomela is compared first to a lamb, then a dove, “its feathers stained with its blood.” This phrasing could be literal, or refer to Philomela’s psyche (the bloodstains indicating trauma). The bloodstains on the dove’s white feathers could also relate, again, to her chastity, after it has been ruined by Tereus’s rape. Philomela reproaches Tereus for stealing her virginity, as well as ruining the purity of his marriage with Procne, for which Philomela now feels guilty. While admonishing Tereus for the rape, she still takes responsibility for it as though she willingly aided Tereus in being unfaithful to Procne. Such self-blame was common for Roman women who had been raped, so it is fitting that the same would take place in their mythology.
Notably, Romen men were also likely to blame women for being raped, so it is fitting as well that a woman blames herself in this myth, which was written by a man. At the crux of the story, Tereus ties up Philomela and cuts off her tongue in fear of being reported for his crime. This is telling imagery on Ovid’s part; instead of killing her (which is even what Philomela wants), he tortures and dehumanizes her. He then leaves her this way, alone in the middle of the woods, for a year. The physical and psychological torture is without any regard for her as a human being–Tereus again shows his mindset that women are bodies without minds and souls. This removal of a woman’s voice is a pattern in Greco-Roman mythology: women are transformed into trees or cows and lose all ability to speak and, more importantly, to be understood. However, being understood as a woman in Greco-Roman mythology is already hindered by classical stereotypes. Philomela and Procne turn from traumatized women to murderers in an instant near the end of the myth. Procne is portrayed this way because of Roman ideals of marriage: she does not forgive her husband for this rape or admonish Philomela for tempting Tereus to be unfaithful, so she becomes a woman with no conscience who kills an innocent child (her own, in fact–this is a stab at her motherhood). Procne, unlike Philomela, does not grieve quietly once she discovers that her sister is alive and harmed: she immediately turns to vengeance, which was a masculine mindset. It is thus likely that Philomela, who is relatively meek following the rape, would have been seen as corrupted by Procne and her conniving ways. Because she is not demure, even through extreme emotional adversity, Procne must be heartless and cruel. That is, a woman who is bad at being a woman must be a bad person as well. Roman society, which was controlled entirely by men, created a narrative told time and time again in their mythology: women who do not submit to male violence fully are villainous and untrustworthy. This allowed male violence to persist unchecked–men were the only ones telling the stories, and the women included in such stories simply kept their heads down and wept tragically.
Robson, J. E.. “Bestiality and Bestial Rape in Greek Myth.” Rape in Antiquity: Sexual Violence in the Greek and Roman Worlds, edited by Susan Deacy and Karen Pierce, Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd, 2002, pp. 65-76.
J. E. Robson explores potential reasons for the obsession with bestiality in antiquity in his essay, “Bestiality and Bestial Rape in Greek Myth.” The essay was split into several sections, the first raising the question of the psychological appeal of bestiality. This attitude toward human/animal sexual relations resulted in a fetishistic approach to animals in Grecian art and mythology. Generally speaking, art depicted men raping animals whilst mythology featured women being raped by animals. This fascination with animalistic sex largely has not changed; in fact, around the time of the 1950s, American men commonly engaged in bestial rape (eight percent of men nationally, 50 percent of men rurally) (67). This pattern was not noted for American women, leading me to presume that it was much less likely, if existent at all. The practice of bestiality seems to have been, for men, relatively normalized for millennia. Robson theorizes that this is particular to men for a multitude of reasons, one being the ties between masculinity and hunting. Hunting was a noted part of the pubertal rituals for Greek boys, as was being taken to the woods and relinquishing symbols of childhood (such as clothing, toys, and uncut hair). Another part of the ritual included cross-dressing. This was likely representative of a last chance to express their femininity before they became men. The pubertal rituals for girls largely mirrored that of the boys with some significant differences. The rites celebrated the virgin goddess Artemis, whom Greek girls served from the ages of 10 to 14. The specificity of age was purposeful; it is believed that the age of 14 was chosen due to the timing of a girl’s first menstrual cycle; this was also the time during which girls would undergo the rites. Girls were instructed to stop worshipping Artemis lest it “infringe the girls’ ripeness … for marriage” (71). A girl’s purpose, as soon as she was fertile, was to produce children, so continuing to worship the goddess was viewed as unproductive. Thus, it becomes clear that the function of the rituals was as a marker for fertility–a girl’s new sexual usefulness to men. The girls, as part of the ceremony, were dressed up as bears. This parallel formed between girls and animals is believed to have indicated menstruation and fertility.
The differences between the female and male pubertal rituals lies mostly in the ways that they affected adult life for Greek women and men. After their rituals, young men would be recognized as citizens of Greece (and allowed rights as citizens). The same was not true for young women. It seems that adulthood for men was largely psychological and social, whereas for women, the decision to consider them adults was solely based on physical attributes (the ability to birth children). Hence, boys became men and girls became wives. The rituals functioned as a transitional period from child to adult with the inclusion of special clothing, which opposed the end goal. Boys became, through dressing as women, masculine, and girls became, through dressing as animals, domesticated (71). Marriage was framed as the last step of “taming” a girl (73). Robson notes that “wife” in Greek translates to “tamed one” (73). This elucidates the true meaning of the male obsession with bestiality: it was not the inclusion of animals that was appealing, but the concept of controlling a sexual partner. This is why pubescent boys engaged in hunting and pubescent girls dressed up as animals. As Robson discusses, similarly to their mythology, Greek culture set up a predator/prey dynamic between men and women in real life. It is no coincidence that most myths containing bestiality involve a god raping a virgin girl. It seems that animals could either be perceived as powerless when in the place of a woman (when the girl was transformed) or limitlessly powerful when in the place of a man (when the god shapeshifted). Likewise, in Greek art, young men were portrayed in similar manners whether pursuing animals or women, a symptom of the conflation of the murder of animals and the rape of women. The same verbs in Greek could describe “a woman’s marriage, seduction, or even rape,” again equating love (although that was not the usual impetus for marriages in antiquity) and sexual violence (73). Thus, it becomes unequivocally clear that marriage was a form of sexual control in Greco-Roman society.
Ovid. “Ovid’s Metamorphoses.” University of Virginia Library, Translated by Anthony Kline, ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Ovhome.htm. Accessed 24 Jan. 2020.
Ovid’s Metamorphosesis a collection of Greco-Roman myths centering on transformation. This transformation is consistently physical, the typical metamorphosis being a human character becoming an animal or plant. Sometimes the metamorphosis changes a character into a different person; this type of change is usually a change in assigned sex (typically a woman being changed into a man for freedom or safety, such as in the stories of Caenis, Mestra, and Iphis). A significant number of the myths in Ovid’s 15 books end with a woman undergoing a transformation. The desire to make women inhuman in sources of entertainment is telling. Additionally, Greco-Roman entertainment overwhelmingly used sexual themes as a plot point when women were included in a given story. In this way, stories about men were about life and personhood and stories about women were about men. At the time, this was both a result of and a catalyst for a society that viewed men as people and women as commodities for male use. In my research, I found several myths that furthered this theory. Pomona, for example, falls in love with Vertumnus conveniently moments before he rapes her. The section reads, “He was ready to force her, but no force was needed.” Passages like these raise the question of whether the woman’s consent truly matters. Vertumnus would have obtained what he wanted whether Pomona said she loved him or not. Vertumnus also tells Pomona a story in the hopes of convincing her to love him. The story is about a young woman who refuses a man’s advances, so he commits suicide and she turns to stone, to match her unfeeling heart. This seems to be more of a threat than a story, told to frighten Pomona into loving him lest they both die. It is notable, then, that Ovid refers to Vertumnus’s feelings as love, rather than lust. Pomona is one of many female characters who is programmed to love a specific male character. Women such as Circe and Pygmalion’s statue lose any characteristics they previously had to fit the mold of a love interest to a man who needs a companion. A woman such as Circe seems to have sex with Ulysses only to further the plot, whereas the statue, Galatea, is created because Pygmalion scorns human women, leading him to create the perfect wife: immobile and voiceless, with a body but no soul or mind. It would appear that in Roman culture, few instances of love were more than one-sided lust and the power to act on it.
Certain overarching themes in Ovid’s Metamorphoses reflect the cultural viewpoints on love and power in Rome. The pattern of paternal control occurs in the myths of Erysichthon and Mestra, Cinyras and Myrrha, Achelous and Perimele, Io and Jupiter, and the aforementioned Daphne and Apollo and Philomela and Tereus. Most of these stories revolve around the father’s choice of when his daughter will lose her virginity and to whom. Often the young woman’s virginity can be conveniently traded as part of a deal, such as in the cases of Procne and Mestra. (In Book VIII of the Metamorphoses, Mestra’s father, Erysichthon, sold her into slavery to a male buyer; although this may not have indicated sexual slavery, it is historically likely.) In certain cases, once a woman’s virginity is tainted, whether on her own accord or not, the father reacts violently. Examples include Myrrha and Perimele, whose fathers attempted to murder them after discovering that they were no longer virgins. There is ambiguity as to whether Perimele was raped by Achelous or had sex willingly, but the case of Myrrha is particularly interesting. She is cursed to fall in love with her father. Once Cinyras discovers that the young woman with whom he agreed to have sex is his daughter, he tries to kill her, instead of himself (despite being consumed by guilt and grief). This violent behavior is not out of love for their daughters–the men are, in fact, actively endangering their daughters’ lives– but out of a compulsive need for possession. This control reflects the history of real Roman father-daughter relationships: a woman belonged to her father until she belonged to a husband.
The idea of an unmarried, autonomous woman was a threat to the male population of Rome; thus, they constructed stories portraying such uninhibited women as unmanageable and cruel. Such examples include the aforementioned Procne and Philomela after the latter’s rape, Medusa, and Circe. Medusa is perhaps one of the most misrepresented myths in our popular culture, which speaks to the legacy of this story. Only few characters from Greco-Roman mythology are historically preserved quite so well as she. However, our modern memory of Medusa is an inaccurate one, the best remembered sections, unsurprisingly, painting her as an ugly and heartless temptress capable of and willing to turn men to stone. (This view is particularly ironic given the number of female characters who originate from or are turned into stone in the Metamorphoses.) Medusa’s legacy speaks to how the male fear of a direct flip of power dynamics has largely not changed. Men have, for thousands of years, feared a woman able to confiscate their voice and bodily autonomy–a valid concern, but one that has been true for women since the beginning of patriarchy. The original story of Medusa, as told in the Metamorphoses, is one of protection. After Medusa is raped by Neptune in Minerva’s temple, the virgin goddess Minerva punishes Medusa by changing her hair to snakes. In my free time prior to the beginning of this bibliographic research, I had informally researched the debate about Minerva’s intentions when cursing Medusa. Reading the myth myself, the linguistic choice is notable: “so that it might not go unpunished.” This phrasing reads as Minerva performing an obligatory act to uphold her reputation while simultaneously protecting Medusa–indeed, it was the woman’s hair that most charmed her suitors. While removing the main element of attraction, Minerva also provided Medusa with the ability to immobilize men. Minerva knew the effect that the snakes would have on men; this is clear because she imprints the image on her own armor “to terrify her enemies, numbing them with fear.” And yet Medusa, a beautiful young virgin, is remembered as a monster. It would seem that her only wrongdoing was being raped by a man, which was and still is enough to ruin her reputation.
Yet another misrepresented woman of antiquity is Circe, a woman who has sex with Ulysses and frees his companions after he hits her wand out of her hand and pulls out his sword. Circe is one of many female characters in the Metamorphoseswho perpetuates the pattern of engaging sexually with a man immediately following his threat of rape or murder. This provides a viewpoint that using violence when trying to attract a woman is effective, whether she subsequently loves him or simply is willing to have sex (this distinction is not so important). This “if it works, it works” approach is another example of both a cause and symptom of Roman rape culture. I have found that the cause of damnation in the cultural perception of Circe stems from her propensity for masculine behaviors. She is vindictive, powerful, willing to cause harm, and angry when her advances are rejected. However, she is a woman and proud of it: “‘You will learn the truth of what the wounded; a lover; a woman, can do: and Circe is a lover; is wounded; is a woman!’” She embraces both power and sensitivity, which is deeply threatening to a male audience; it is unsurprising that she is painted as manipulative and petty–feminine and thus harmless traits. As well as archetypal depictions of female characters, it is useful to review male self-characterization, which predominantly occurs in the Metamorphosesin the form of men acting as saviors for women whom they themselves endangered.
Several myths feature a man giving a woman a gift in hopes of reluctantly being allowed to have sex with her or as a consolation prize for raping her. The latter can be found in the story of Erysichthon, when his daughter, Mestra, prays to Neptune to “save [her] from slavery” as a means of repayment for taking her virginity, which is referred to as a “prize.” Caenis is also raped by Neptune, and he immediately offers her any gift. It it possible that he planned to grant her a wish before raping her–a sort of exchange without asking her beforehand, so that he could obtain what he wanted while appearing fair to anyone that she may tell. She wishes to not be a woman anymore solely because of the rape, stating that she never again wants “to be able to suffer any such.” Neptune makes it impossible for the same traumatic event to reoccur by turning Caenis into a man. In this way, Neptune leaves the exchange without having lost anything, while Caenis leaves without having gained anything, having lost her autonomy, her sense of safety, and her own body. Lastly, the Sibyl of Cumae details a conversation she once had with her ex-lover, Apollo. He once tried to charm her into having sex with him, offering her anything. Eventually, he offered her an eternally youthful lifetime lasting a thousand years. She still refuses to lose her virginity, so he gives her a lifetime lasting a thousand years, but does not grant her eternal youth. She then discusses being forgotten and “‘non-existent, but still known as a voice,’” lamenting that “‘Phoebus too perhaps will either not know [her], or will deny that he loved [her].’” Apollo’s love is limited and largely reliant on whether or not the Sibyl agrees to have sex with him; it is conditional and fleeting, enough that he will either forget about her or refuse to admit his former love out of spite that she refused him. It is not love at all, but again lust. It is significant that the Sibyl emphasizes the power of her voice; it is this crucial means of expression that so many female characters in the Metamorphoseslose or perhaps never had. As previously stated, storytelling invariably reflects real-life history and culture, and moments such as the panic of the bovine Io as she finds she cannot form words or the cutting off of Philomela’s tongue as it throbs on the dirt floor of the woods express the familiar voicelessness of real women and the ensuing heartbreak at the loss of their already limited power. Although many of Ovid’s Metamorphoses do not directly include violence against women, dozens of the myths show the preparatory steps: control, silencing, devaluing, and defamation; these steps break down a woman’s defense systems until she can be harmed freely with no repercussions.